The Late, Great Center

After many years as the bête noir of the right, the left's leading think tank has fallen on hard times


Q: When a group of extremely serious, thoroughly dedicated intellectuals combine to promote radical change in the archaic, reactionary system of American private enterprise, what is their first step?
A: They obtain a million-dollar grant from the Ford Foundation.

And so it began with the esteemed Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. The place was Santa Barbara, California. The year was 1959. And the grant from the legacy of the late Henry Ford (who turned to the left only after his death) was 15 million dollars American.

Such grandiose beginnings gave rise to more than modest aspirations. "We think of ourselves as a kind of early-warning system," boasted the late founder of the Center, Robert M. Hutchins. "We are concerned with basic rather than burning issues."

Yet there was much aflame in these basic issues in the eyes of the philosopher kings the Center brought to its mount—in bourgeois style, called Eucalyptus Hill—on the beautiful Santa Barbara coast. (Among the gurus: Arnold Toynbee, Reinhold Neibuhr, William O. Douglas, J. William Fulbright, Wayne Morse, Walter Lippman, John V. Lindsay, U Thant, Erich Fromm, George Romney, and J. Kenneth Galbraith.)

Allow Mr. Hutchins, the former president of the University of Chicago, to stake the rest of the claim: "The Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions is trying to do what has never been done before.…The Center is not engaged in specialized research. It is endeavoring to identify and clarify the great issues of our time."

The consequences of such work, Hutchins believed, would be fairly important. To wit: "If democratic countries are to remain democratic, it would seem that they require centers of independent thought and criticism about the problems democracy faces today."


With so much riding on the Center's picturesque shoulders, the paramount concern has been to steer clear of all undue influences. The Center thus dedicated itself to isolation in heroic style. In the words of its 1979 president, Maurice Mitchell, the Center is a place where "people of various disciplines can come together and talk about problems without feeling they have to be faithful to economists, scientists, humanists, philosophers, Republicans, Democrats, socialists, or what have you." They do have to be faithful, though, to the legacy of the famed authoritarian Center ruler, already implicated, Mr. Hutchins.

And Mr. Hutchins began the scholarly enterprise with far from a clean ideological slate. His grave concern was "the inadequacy of the Invisible Hand of the marketplace as the director of the common good," and his nonnegotiable conclusion was baldly proclaimed:

The Center is learning that law and government must be invoked if the common good is to be achieved. This means that politics is indispensable and must be possible. If law and politics are taken as a conjugation of the verb "to persuade," a clue to the salvation of law, government, and politics even under contemporary conditions may be found.

Beware any "think tank" that, under the guise of "publishing thoughtful papers on different sides of controversies," proceeds so thoroughly to mangle the national tongue that the violence of political coercion ends up defined as "persuasion." Nonetheless, the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions remains a blessing on two counts.

On the one hand, it has pioneered the idea of the "think tank," a concept born of President Roosevelt's catchy "brain trust." (The case could, of course, be made that FDR's advisors had actually put their brains into a trust—a blind trust—in order to serve their political chores without any conflicts of interest. Such a claim was, in effect, made by the first brain-truster, Raymond Moley, who wrote After Seven Years, an outstanding 1939 attack penned the moment Moley had redeemed his brain from the trust.) The Center set a fashion for wealthy people to give large sums of money to intellectuals on the grounds that society needs "free thinkers"—a windfall so remarkable for the entire academic community that its import hardly need be detailed.

And second, the Center is of interest as a research laboratory for studying the scholars who study society. This zeroes in on the two-way nature of social science. The scholars, of course, believe that they are the ones conducting the research rather than participating in it. For the sake of experiment, naturally, that is just what we want them to believe.

This is only one of the many wondrous paradoxes that sprout from the grassy turf surrounding Eucalyptus Hill. It could well have been dubbed, not a "think tank," but an "irony mill." What better introduction to a famous place where the Elizabeth Taylors and Farah Fawcetts of the intellectual world collect to lap up martinis, to eye the Pacific sunset, and to leave the telephone off the hook so that scholarly encyclicals (generally, transcriptions of the tape-recorded chats between the mental giants so hobnobbed) may be issued on the horrors of economic freedom and affluence. What better setting to discover them!


If exaggeration appears to have infected this portrayal, perhaps insufficient data have been brought to bear. Consider, then, the most popular Center "conclusion"—that human values must change if the race is to survive.

Possibly the Center's most compelling argument on this topic appeared in the June 1975 issue of the Center Report (its bimonthly magazine that alternated with its other bimonthly, The Center Magazine, those in academic circles being uncanny in their creative choice of titles). Appearing therein was a monumental work by one Eduard Pestel: "Beyond Forrester and Meadows: A Multi-level Model of the World."

Dr. Pestel, a German professor of engineering, no doubt merited a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for describing his entire model, including "about 100,000 relationships," in less than two pages in the Report. Possibly, great detail was considered unnecessary because his work was billed as a sequel to the 1972 report of the Club of Rome, which "scientifically" deduced that "the world's economy is destined to collapse in the next 75 years, unless economic growth halts." Brevity in Part II of such an exciting academic endeavor must have been welcomed by Center Report readers anxious to get to the results.

Before getting to the results, those who are not panicky over the impending apocalypse will be interested in a glimpse of the professor's innovative methodology. Dr. Pestel boasted that many rival world models have only a few hundred algebraic relationships compared to his "about 100,000″—maybe he hadn't the time to count, which might be a clue to the effort spent in carefully "testing" each one. But even with his tolerant view of the computer's capabilities, he was not so generous as to presume that a trifling 100,000 equations could totally describe the world of thinking, breathing, burping men and women. So to close his mathematical model and come up with conclusions—the results his audience eagerly awaited—he plunged into "scenarios."

Now for a social scientist to get to use a great big modern electric computer and still be able to make up his own data points—or, excuse please, "scenarios"—and then to have famous thinkers go goo-goo, ga-ga upon publication of that computer model's scientific conclusions, well now, that's just Puppy Heaven.

In Dr. Pestel's case, it is genuinely difficult to discern any other purpose of the computer apparatus than ornamental. It stamps the brand name "science" onto the prejudices of the programmer; it allows him to write his ruminations on computer tape.

Given such transparent ethics, and remembering the Club of Rome's financial stake in this projection, it is no grand surprise that the Center summed up Pestel's findings as the conclusion that solving "critical problems such as those surrounding energy, food, and environmental degradation" would require "significant changes in the value systems and goals of man" and a reshaping of human instincts toward less-competitive behavior.

Imagine putting together a mathematical model and finding that there can be no logical outcome of the system unless your data (that is, mankind) promise to change. It's the model that's right—and man that's wrong. By God, what holy feelings 100,000 simultaneous equations must give an engineer!


The Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, it is clear, is no humble outfit. It works on Big Projects.

Consider, if more evidence is needed, the New Deal brain-truster Rexford Tugwell, a long-time Center fellow now deceased (this is a recurring Center problem, as the average age of its fellows has been over 60 for a number of years). Tugwell invested his upper-middle-class stipend creating no less than 41 "new" drafts of the US Constitution.

The Center claims partial credit for Michael Harrington's epic The Other America—the book that prompted President Kennedy to launch the "War on Poverty." (That the government ended up surrendering the war, but not before inflicting severe casualties on those alleged to be its own troops, goes curiously unheralded.)

And in the early 1970s the Center felt proud to announce: "Almost 10 years ago the Center held discussions based on the proposition that politics should be primarily concerned with the quality of American life—an idea that now finds its way into the rhetoric of many political leaders, including President Nixon." One marvels at the self-assurance of an intellectual bastion that feels not an ounce of shame in advertising itself as the supplier of meaningless slogans to one of the most cynical hacks currently disgracing the American political stage.

The Center, it should be noted, does not always rave over its own doings. Its publicists have been quite silent in recent mass mailings, for example, about the little-known 1975 volume, Multinational Oil: A Study in Dynamics. Authored by the late UCLA Graduate School of Management economist Neil Jacoby, the volume was touted by the Center in 1975 as "a far-sighted and responsible contribution to the understanding and resolution of world energy problems." The contribution? "The members of OPEC will cut the price of oil because it is in their economic interest to do so." Jacoby further predicted that, "as the world's largest investors, the oil-exporting countries would be hardest hit by the world economic breakdown that now threatens due to over-priced oil." No mention of this prediction appears in current Center literature.


What emerge as most entertaining in the Center's scholarly hop-scotch through contemporary history are (1) its well-developed sense of self-importance; (2) its persistent clinging to the institutions of democracy in the ideological realm while succumbing to the stern disciplines of a very serious headmaster in the practical one; (3) its dumbfounded look of awe at any model of society that, by means of mathematics none of the resident fellows comes close to grasping, produces "proof" of the necessity for (a) more government and (b) more studies; and (4) the country-squire lifestyles of the elderly raconteurs whose chief occupations are (a) slitting one another's academic throats and (b) issuing treatises on the need for reforming human competitiveness.

The internal intrigue stirring inside the elegant world of pure research surfaced in a series of unfortunate events stretching back a decade. First, there was the matter of Robert Hutchins. The Center's prime mover, Hutchins had been head of the Center's parent organization, the Fund for the Republic, in the 1950s. The Fund was established (with Ford Foundation largesse) to provide an antidote to the McCarthyism then in vogue and, presumably, to give liberals a chance to show that they didn't really like communism. When the Fund conceived the Center, in 1959, Hutchins went with the latter.

Now Hutchins was a self-assured sort, and he had reason to be such. He had a law degree from Yale; moreover, he ascended to the post of dean of the Yale Law School at age 29 and to the presidency of the University of Chicago at 32. And those are surely grounds for being overwhelmed with oneself.

It is undeniable that, from the perspective of influencing American academia and media, the Center has accomplished Big Impact to go along with its Big Projects. Of course, it didn't hurt to be handed $26 million to do the job ($15 million from the Ford Foundation, $5 million from Xerox founder Chester Carlson, and nickels and dimes from various assorted tycoons). And Hutchins proceeded to spend all 30 million of it, thus blessing the Center with a budgetary deficit of just the sort so many of its scholars had been urging on the national government. Fortunately for the disciples of Mr. Jarvis, however, the Center was not similarly endowed with any powers of taxation.

The results have been more rational. The Center has conducted a protracted, reluctant going-out-of-business sale of its mansion and 42-acre estate. Starting in 1969 (perhaps as "an advance warning system," as the Center likes to think of itself, of the economic downturn about to come), the Center cleaned house, purging itself of several administrators and fellows, particularly the more radical breed. Part of Hutchins's intended "reform" of Center procedures, the termination decisions were to be made by an elaborate process that never worked, prompting one jilted senior fellow to comment: "What was designed as the purest of democratic procedures became something as dirty as the dirtiest political convention."


The ship steadied until Hutchins's decision in 1974 to retire as the Center's first and only president. One-man rule had been a hidden boon to the science of democracy, and when Hutchins left the job to University of Minnesota president Malcolm Moos (a Re-pub-li-can from the Ike "brain trust"), not even the Center's own computer programmers were able to predict the impending disaster.

It wasn't for lack of good ideas that Mr. Moos dropped the ball. Indeed, on his arrival he alertly noted that at least one economist should have been tolerated at the Center. "The Center has never had an economist," he observed. "The trouble is," he said in explanation, "few people agree on who are the great post-Keynesian economists, if any." And he had thought about scholarly strategies. "I would like to develop a kind of academy here," he announced. He wanted to remodel the Center after Rockefeller University in New York—a school completely given to research by an elite core of faculty, researchers, and carefully chosen graduate students. (Moos understood that the study of democracy is much too important to be left to the masses.)

But Moos, who had given up a $300 million budget and 62,000 students in hopes of sharing some dry martinis and a juicy intellectual challenge, was tripped up by fiscal realities and petty bickerings. In trying to right the Center's Congress-like spending habits, Moos stepped on some scholarly toes. He went so far as to cut the staff from 64 to 39 and to order that the kitchen start serving spaghetti luncheon as an economy move. That was all the Center could take, and Shake-up 1975 was set in motion.


Moos had failed to last a year, and when his head went rolling, it soon had company—all the tenured-for-life resident intellectuals were axed, as well. That move put the Center in court.

That has not been an uncommon place for it in recent years. Many of the free thinkers who were terminated socked the Center for severance pay. By January 1977 the IOUs made an impressive list: $63,144 owed to Harry Ashmore (a founding fellow of the Center), $24,939 to Rexford Tugwell, $36,699 to Frank Kelly, $37,348 to Malcolm Moos, and so on. Firing Big Thinkers can be a very grubby business.

And the two grubbiest terminations were yet to be settled. First was the exciting case of Harvey Wheeler, one of the Center's original senior fellows. With his legal counsel going—with a vengeance—after $47,041.46 in civil damages, Wheeler has demonstrated that there is no legal foe more bitter than an intellectual who despises the importance of money.

Wheeler, coauthor of the well-known novel Fail Safe, filed suit in 1976 with the charge that, according to the Santa Barbara News Press, "the Center—which always has held itself out as a foremost defender and promoter of dissent and academic freedom—was trying to thwart his own academic freedom and harassing him because he criticized it after the bitter restructuring" of 1975. Wheeler was only partially upset over the termination of his prestigious academic post at the institution; he was more excited about the manner in which he had been ushered out of office.

Wheeler's suit charged the Center with harassment "concerning various files and papers which he removed from his office" and with "from time to time asserting and threatening to assert claims against his future intellectual work product and future writings on grounds that such might be traced to work done while he was employed by the defendants." The quest to solve society's "basic issues" dissolves into a scholarly kiddies' game of "I thought it up first!" They ended up settling out of court.


The second big Center drop-out was Alex (Joy of Sex) Comfort. Comfort, a gerontologist, had taken a walk on a tenured faculty position at University College in London, and his wife did likewise from the London School of Economics, to sail to Santa Barbara in 1974. The lure must have been tempting: a water-tight tax dodge to garner the profits from Comfort's bestseller.

Under the terms of the deal, the author was to donate all of the Joy of Sex royalties to the Center and to be paid back 80 percent as a resident senior fellow. In the grand shake-up of 1975, he was the only fellow not to be terminated—undoubtedly because of the value of his contract.

Yet Comfort, who had moved half-way 'round the world to be at what he actually thought would be a "think tank," decided to jump ship. He, too, took to the courts, charging that he had been brought to the Center under false pretenses (the Center's financial security) and suing for over $400,000 in royalties. Although Comfort won the suit, the deciding judge was not impressed with the collectivist-oriented institute's most libertarian practices: "The shabby pact," ruled US District Judge David Williams, simply diverted income "away from the British tax collector"—an artistic maneuver, indeed, for the very same Center that delighted in publishing Gunnar Myrdal's preachings about a more equitable distribution of income via higher taxes on the wealthy.

Alex Comfort's financial charges were only his opening overture, however. He went on to assail the Center's ethics and presumptuousness. "The management and control of the Center was not in the nature of a democracy, but was a monarchy or oligarchy beset with machinations and intrigues more typical to a Byzantine house of ill repute." As for the Center's ill-chosen financial portfolio, Comfort commented that funds "had been imprudently and unwisely spent and dissipated principally for personal pleasures and unduly lavish benefits and travels of [Robert M.] Hutchins and those persons he sought…to favor."


Well, Mr. Hutchins, the one-time prodigy turned cantankerous codger, is no longer a Center liability, for he passed away at an advanced age in the spring of 1977. The Center's leadership, which Hutchins had reassumed after the Moos attempt, passed to Maurice Mitchell, formerly chancellor of the University of Denver.

Mitchell set about consolidating the Center's monetary losses, liquidating what remains (about 11 acres and the original mansion, now in a jungle-like state of care) of the once-grand villa estate, and hopping into the friendly arms of the University of California at Santa Barbara. Somehow, it is no great surprise that this ivory tower ends up on the public dole. (Although the Center is to be formally affiliated with the UCSB Foundation, a nonprofit charitable organization set up in 1973, the university administration is not promising, but only "hoping," that the Center will be able to maintain financial independence after its "dowry" from the sale of the estate is used up.)

Press statements concerning the Center's move to the UCSB campus are full of amphetamine-like exuberance over restoration of the Center's resources and capabilities. Yet the very idea of alliance with a state university is antithetical to the Center's founding vision. It was to be a unique mountain watch-out o'er society, uninhibited by the demands of government, industry, or—most forcefully—academia. It would, unhampered by the trivia and biases of the workaday world, lay down priorities for the rest of mankind.

That dream has ended. As an adjunct to the history department at one long-established government school, the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, with "Robert M. Hutchins" newly affixed to the front of its name, will become just one more office building, tossing out just so many more scholarly grants. The massive social changes that the Center so dramatically billed as imperative in its "model of the world system" turned out to not have been made in time. It has succumbed to the very forces it bemoaned so loudly.


Human "competitiveness"—that was the great malaise of our time. Yet the bountiful coffers that, having been donated by the most competitive of human institutions, were devoted to the cause of eliminating this scourge, were themselves depleted by the acquisitiveness of the enlightened so employed.

There is therefore a mistaken tendency to see this saga as a failed experiment: The goal was to make us more "democratic" by figuring out a way to make us less "competitive," and those who peopled the Center ended up sliding down into that dog-eat-dog pit of rivalry they so ardently feared. But this simply completes the Center's tale of pervasive irony.

Far from writing off this paradoxical intellectual establishment as Utopia Lost, we should hold it up to the light for the positive contribution it remains. For the Center has demonstrated, under the best of laboratory conditions, that the tide of human affairs churns onward without respect to "good intentions." The dynamics of society rest, not on what intelligent dreamers might hypothesize human beings to be, but only on the truth about what they are. Designing human institutions that give short shrift to individuals' inner characters, banking their hopes on realigning the subject to be studied, have even less chance for success in the enormous waters of the world at large than they have in the tiny Jacuzzi of progressive thought once situated on a pretty seaside hill in California.

When we come to understand that society's progress depends upon a regime of freedom, which provides the incentive for real human beings to channel their energies into constructive pursuits, and that progress does not depend upon the imposition of wise schemes by talented overseers of good will, we will have grasped the most important message of the Center's two decades of social work. It is important enough to launch the next great social experiment: The Center for the Study of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions.

Thomas Hazlett, a frequent contributor to REASON, has published in Los Angeles magazine, National Review, Inquiry, and other periodicals. He is a doctoral student in economics at UCLA and is on the staff of the International Institute for Economic Research. Some of the research for this article was done by REASON intern Naomi Geschwind.